You know that old saw about how when you're in a car wreck, everything slips into slow motion in the seconds before impact, and you can see your whole life pass before you? Listening to Jimmy Scott is sort of like that. You feel like you could die trying to hold your breath between the words of a Scott ballad. He almost does.
He doesn't have to use any gimmickry or tricks, and he doesn't have any obvious trademark moves. He simply possesses an extraordinary instrument his impossibly high voice over which, at age 75, he still exercises extraordinary control.
Rediscovered in the early 1990s after a long layoff from performing (his career dates back to the late 1940s), Scott recorded a series of well-received albums for Sire and Warner Bros., produced by admirers ranging from Tommy LiPuma to Mitchell Froom. Now, working with producer Todd Barkan, he's back with a jazz label and doing what he does best: recasting standards and pop ballads in his own image, with intimate backing provided by his road quartet, by solo instrumentalists, and by an ace studio quartet featuring Hank Crawford on alto, Cyrus Chestnut on piano, bassist George Mraz and drummer Grady Tate.
"Blue Skies" is the closest thing to an uptempo song here. Yet, for all his potential misery (and this is a man whose life you wouldn't wish on anyone: A hereditary hormonal deficiency is the reason the diminutive Scott's voice, and his body, never reached puberty), he somehow invests the saddest songs with a glimmer of hope.
The rest of the time, Scott just moves at his own slow pace, sculpting the words to each song into things of luminous beauty repeating a phrase over and over, phrasing the last word of each line differently each time, sobbing on key words, asking eternal questions ("How Deep Is the Ocean"), exploring answers from every direction, and ending each time on a triumphant note. He doesn't sing his songs so much as he lives inside of them: "Without a Song" (RealAudio excerpt) is a love song to songs, as if they were real life and his only friends, the only things that haven't burned him. He lists some of the good things "Imagination" can do for you and, then how it can betray you, and in the process he makes loneliness sound lush, almost whimsical. On "Smile," he sings the title word myriad ways, giving each use a different power.
And the title song breaks hearts not once, but twice "Mood Indigo" (RealAudio excerpt) in a pained quartet version, "Mood Indigo (reprise)" wiser and more reflectively, with only Joe Beck's alto guitar for company. It's a perfect ending to a remarkable CD one that catches Scott not just at his best, but doing the things only this most singular of singers can do.